A controversial proposal to temporarily restrict the expansion of some types of oyster farming in St. Mary’s County, MD, has been tabled for now, as county officials lobby the state to give more weight to local wishes in the permitting of aquaculture.Oysters grow in rows of floating cages at a site JD Blackwell leases along the Chesapeake Bay shoreline in St. Mary’s County, MD. (Dave Harp)

The St. Mary’s Board of County Commissioners decided on Tuesday, Sept. 11, to extend the public comment period until Dec. 4 on a proposed ordinance that would impose an 18-month moratorium on the use of commercial docks to support new state-approved leases for growing oysters in cages or floats.

The decision — reached by a 4-0 vote, with one commissioner absent — comes two weeks after a well-attended public hearing in Leonardtown, where more people spoke in opposition to the proposed moratorium than spoke in favor. Commissioner Todd Morgan, who had recused himself earlier, left the chamber before the vote because an application is pending to permit an aquaculture operation in front of his waterfront home.

The Southern Maryland county has become a hotbed of the state’s resurgent aquaculture industry, with 97 oyster farming leases issued and 44 lease applications pending just off St. Mary’s shoreline in the Patuxent and Potomac rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.  Waterfront homeowners and some watermen have pushed back against the flurry of leases, which are issued by the state Department of Natural Resources. 

At the Aug. 28 hearing, supporters of the moratorium said they believed that oyster cages on the river or Bay bottom or floats on the water’s surface pose safety or navigational hazards and interfere with recreational activities such as fishing, swimming, hunting and water skiing. Some also said they fear their homes will lose value. Oyster farmers and environmentalists said that the property owners’ concerns are already taken into account in state leasing decisions, which can drag on for years and lead to substantial changes in siting and size. They also pointed out that oyster aquaculture generates jobs and helps clean the water.

When officials met on Tuesday to follow up on the hearing, Commissioner John O’Connor, who had expressed reservations about the moratorium at the hearing, moved to extend the public comment period.  The county has received dozens of written comments since the hearing, and he suggested that the commissioners and staff need more time to consider the issue.

O’Connor’s motion was seconded by Commissioner Tom Jarboe, who nevertheless defended his support of the proposed ordinance. While acknowledging that the county has no say in what happens in the water, Jarboe countered that the state, in approving so many “water-column” leases for cage or float aquaculture, “is completely overrunning a lot of the desires and wishes of local people down here.”

“One of the reasons we did this was to accelerate and require the state to have the conversation with local government about the impacts of what they were trying to do,” Jarboe added.

Shortly after the St. Mary’s commissioners scheduled their public hearing, the DNR convened an informal workgroup to help review the state’s current aquaculture laws and regulations, which took effect  eight years ago.  DNR officials said the group, which includes watermen, local officials and some lease holders, hopes to come up with ways to reduce leasing conflicts between aquaculture operations, watermen and waterfront property owners, while also looking to streamline the lengthy permitting process.

Mike Hewitt, another St. Mary’s County commissioner, said he believed that the county had gotten the state’s attention with its proposed moratorium. He expressed sympathy for waterfront property owners, who he said were being unfairly accused of opposing leases because they don’t want to see aquaculture activity from their shore.

“It’s not that at all,” he said. “It’s people who like to enjoy [the water], whether they swim, whether they jet-ski, whether they trotline … So, it’s important to understand that there’s two sides to every issue.”

Hewitt and Randy Guy, the president of the county commissioners, both called for the formation of a local focus group to hash out their issues. If any local agreement can be reached, they said, perhaps it could form the basis of changes in state law or policy to give waterfront property owners and local officials more notice and more say in how and where oyster farming occurs.

“There needs to be [a way] to strike a balance, to find some middle ground,” Hewitt said.

Comments can be emailed to the commissioners at csmc@stmarysmd.com or mailed to P.O. Box 653, 41770 Baldridge Street, Leonardtown, MD 20650.